Rebecca Saunders – murmurs (UK Première)

by 5:4

Rebecca Saunders at 50

Since the trace is not a presence but the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates itself, displaces itself, refers itself, it properly has no site; erasure belongs to its structure. And not only the erasure which must always be able to overtake it (without which it would not be a trace but an indestructible and monumental substance), but also the erasure which constitutes it from the outset as a trace, which situates it as the change of site, and makes it disappear in its appearance, makes it emerge from itself in its production.

Got that? This quotation from Jacques Derrida is one of the texts Rebecca Saunders uses in the notes that precede the score of her 2009 work murmurs. The piece is one of several she has composed that she calls a ‘collage’, in this case one for ensemble but described as being “of seven parts”. This is a reference to the number of discrete musical “sound surfaces” – Saunders’ term – that are deployed throughout the piece, comprising five soloists: bass flute, oboe, bass clarinet, violin, and piano (player 1), and two duos: piano (player 2) and percussion, and viola and cello (a total of nine players, not 10 as erroneously indicated in numerous online sources). Saunders’ use of the word ‘collage’ is a useful descriptor for the way these entities are deployed as well as the way they relate to one another, though both are more complex than they seem at first.

Saunders’ use of the word “superimposition” to describe the nature of the collage implies a disjunct, detached relationship between the “sound surfaces”. From one perspective, this is certainly how murmurs comes across, the surfaces akin to a diverse collection of unrelated lifeforms coexisting within the same portion of deep ocean, externally indifferent, each preoccupied with its own fragments of material rather than seeking to interact with their neighbours. This is to an extent reinforced by the careful way Saunders constructs the surfaces, each of which is to all intents and purposes a ‘species’ with its own unique traits and characteristics. The bass flute, for example, is comprised of “Dyads and overblown fifths” that are “Fragile – allow ‘unclean’ tones, air and harmonics that occur”, while the violin is “A long extended melodic line thread through the collage of changing density” that must, among other things, “Explore contours of each gesture, surfacing out of, and disappearing into, silence and ‘air'”.

However, these definitions are not designed in isolation. The bass flute must also “Connect with other instrument palettes, in particular the high fifth with oboe, and the dyads with bass clarinet”; the percussion and piano duo, and the piano solo, “should be balanced carefully with the rest of the ensemble”; and the entire ensemble is to “Encourage pulsing between microtonal intervals.” There aren’t many instructions of this kind, and the majority of the definitions lack specific reference to other instruments, but Saunders’ clear intention is that the players in murmurs should walk a line between interior and exterior outlooks, emphasising individuality of utterance yet with some regard to its place, role and effect within the larger sonic mass. This is reinforced by arranging the players around the performance space such that distance predominates yet with the potential for connection. The bass flute and bass clarinet, for example, face each other from opposite sides of the stage, while the violin is positioned so as to form a triangle with them.

In considering this nature of deployment, i’m brought back to that key component of so much contemporary music: behaviour. As the title implies, Saunders has sought to compose a work that speaks at a consistently quiet volume, articulated via an avant-garde kind of mumblecore. From traces to murmurs – is there a theme already developing in this Lent Series? There is: it’s worth noting the central importance of the word ‘trace’ in the Derrida quotation that informs the score of murmurs, the scope of which is widened through another quotation, from Samuel Beckett’s short story Company:

Light infinitely faint it is true since now no more than a mere murmur. …
Some soft thing softly stirring soon to stir no more.
To darkness visible to close the eyes and hear if only that.

Once again, the music is concerned with an interaction with low-level stuff at the limits of perceptibility. However, it seems to me that there’s a key difference in the nature of the interactions in these two works.

In traces, the emphasis is on the discovery or realisation or remembrance of vestiges of something, subsequently grappled with as much by Saunders herself in the act of composition as the orchestra in the act of performance. From the audience’s perspective, then, the traces are passive and the nature of the interaction with them is intrinsic, playing out before our ears ‘over there somewhere’, and we engage not with the traces directly but with the composer’s and orchestra’s interaction with them. Indeed, one could argue that the very thing we don’t hear are the traces themselves, but a sonic testament to the intense human agency seeking to capture and render them. By contrast, in murmurs the traces are deliberately designed and positioned, vestiges of discrete ideas but carefully presented by both composer and players as a remote, nebulous murmuration. In this context, therefore, the traces are active and the nature of the interaction is an extrinsic one, as we the audience engage with them directly, trying to make sense of them in their own right as well as within the group as a whole.

The more i’ve listened to murmurs, the more fascinating this liminal relationship between individuality, couples and the larger collective has become. There’s something societal about it, both in the nature of that shifting relationship itself as well as in its constant questioning of where the locus of control for each fragment of sound really lies. Heard in this way, murmurs becomes a kind of abstract archaeological document, a palimpsest or otherwise partially-erased testimony to some unknown community behaviour, the details of which we’re left to surmise. For reasons that i’m sure i’ll expand upon in future articles in this series, i don’t believe Saunders is seeking to make any kind of statement about the nature of society in murmurs, but nonetheless the way we perceive and interpret what we’re hearing in the piece perhaps reflects something of our own inward and outward preoccupations. Apropos: to return finally to behaviour again, it’s interesting to consider whether one listens to murmurs through a process of attaching to attractive or otherwise interesting passing ephemera within a generally unchanging behavioural state. As such, would it qualify as another work of the type that i’ve previously called ‘steady statist‘? If so, with its overall isotropic, homogeneous character, perhaps there’s something not just societal about it, but universal.

The world première of murmurs was given by Ensemble Recherche on 9 October 2009 in Graz; they gave the UK première a little over a year later on 20 November 2010 in St Paul’s Hall, during the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

Performance notes (excerpts)

“Light infinitely faint it is true since now no more than a mere murmur. …”

Company, Samuel Beckett

The collage

The collage is a superimposition of seven sound surfaces:
bass flute solo, oboe solo, bass clarinet solo, percussion and piano duo, piano solo, violin solo, viola and violoncello duo.


Each line is fragile and imperfect, and is thread through the collage of changing density.
Bring out melodic line of fragments. Encourage pulsing between microtonal intervals.
Explore contours, spectrum and arc of each gesture.
Intimate, almost spoken

Bass flute

Dyads and overblown fifths.
Fragile – allow “unclean” tones, air and harmonics that occur. Explore timbral variations. Bring out arc of each phrase – gentle melodic fragments. Connect with other instrument palettes, in particular, the high fifths with oboe, and the dyads with bass clarinet.


7 multiphonics and 6 double harmonics. All as legato as possible.
All sounds, where possible, surfacing out of, and disappearing into, silence. Allow the natural “air” timbre, and other additional tones, to be heard.
Explore contours of each gesture. An extended melodic line woven through the collage.
Ordinary tones: add vibrato, an open sound, expressive and expansive.

Bass clarinet in Bb

Each gesture surfaces out of, and disappears into, silence.
Expressive, fragile. Trace the fragment of melodic line.

Percussion and piano duo, Piano solo

Percussion placed in curve of piano. Piano lid open, but not removed.
Piano 1 (of duo) and piano 2 (solo) share the same piano, but play independently. The pedals are determined by Piano 1 when playing simultaneously. Piano 1 plays mostly inside the piano in the bass; Piano 2 plays on keys only in top two octaves.
This duo and solo should be balanced carefully with the rest of the ensemble.
Percusion and piano duo: In each gesture, explore the timbral possibilities of the single shared palette of sounds.


A long extended melodic line thread through the collage of changing density. The melodic line is always in motion.
Allow the natural “air” timbre and other additional tones which occur. Explore contours of each gesture, surfacing out of, and disappearing into, silence and “air”. Ordinary tones: expressive and expansive.
In the double and triple harmonic trills, explore the changing spectrum and timbre with varying pressure of bow, bow position and bow patterns. Connect in particular with the oboe line, and also with piano 1 solo.

Viola and violoncello duo

Fragments of melody. Very fragile. Allow the natural “air” timbre and shades of other additional tones to be heard.
Find a tempo between 40 and 48.


Each solo or duo plays their sound surface independently, for which a stop watch is required. There is no score.
Although each solo or duo plays for itself, do listen to the resultant sounds and play with it from time to time.
Also consider the resultant difference tones from the juxtaposition of the different sound planes, and the continuation of the
melodic line passed onto a new instrument.

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Thank you for this Saunders piece! I was surprised to realize that I never heard this piece before (I have a lot of Saunders music from live broadcasts), so I can’t wait to listen to this recording later today.

The date on your file says 2011-02-11, which is different from the dates of the two performances by Ensemble Recherche you mention in your post. Would you kindly clarify which performance it is?

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